Echoing the past glory of what used to occur in the Temple, approximately 50,000 people gathered at the Kotel (the Western Wall) on Sunday to receive the priestly blessing from hundreds of Kohanim (Jewish men of the priestly caste) during the festival holiday of Sukkot. Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, people from all over the world, filled Jerusalem for the holiday that, in Temple times, was a universal celebration honoring the God of Abraham.
The Kotel Plaza had a distinctive holiday atmosphere as thousands of lulavs (palm fronds) waved in the air. Sukkot is a particularly aesthetic holiday in which Jews are commanded to dwell in gaily-decorated booths for seven days. The prayer service performed at the Kotel prior to the Priestly Blessing included hallel, celebratory verses in Psalms which are sung while waving the Four Species: a frond from a palm tree, myrtle leaves, willow leaves, and a citron (etrog in Hebrew).
This event was a much larger enactment of the Kohanic blessings that are part of the regular prayers. In the presence of a quorum, the Kohanim are called to bless the congregation in a rite that has its roots in the Bible.
Before giving the blessing, the Kohanim had their hands washed by Levites, men from the tribe of Levi, tasked with serving in the Temple. The Kohanim then moved to the front of the crowd and took up places adjacent to the ancient stones of the Kotel. They removed their shoes, since the priests served in the Temple barefoot, and covered themselves entirely in a tallit (prayer shawl).
The blessing is performed by the priests holding their hands up with the fingers of both hands separated so as to make five spaces between them. The spaces are between the ring finger and middle finger of each hand, between the index finger and thumb of each hand, and the two thumbs touch each other at the knuckle.
Speak to Aharon and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Yisrael. Say to them:
Hashem bless you and protect you!
Hashem deal kindly and graciously with you!
Hashem bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!
Many VIPs came to be blessed as well. Both new chief rabbis, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, were present, as was Likud MK Rabbi Yehudah Glick. The U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a religious Jew, also attended.
The event takes place twice a year, during chol hamoed (the intermediary days) of Sukkot and Passover. In Temple times, people of all faiths came from all over the world to celebrate Sukkot alongside the Jews. This is reflected in modern times as the city of Jerusalem fills up with tourists from around the world.